Sometimes general managers make decisions, and sometimes it seems as if the universe makes their decisions for them. Consider the case of Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, who on Tuesday fired Habs coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with former Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien.
That Therrien was on the hot seat was hardly news. The Habs got off to a 13-1-1 start this season, but they've since plummeted back to earth and then some: Since Jan. 9, the Canadiens are just 6-9-2, and they've been especially bad in February, going 1-5-1 even as they've gotten healthier. They remain in first place in the weak Atlantic division, but a continued slump could easily put them in a position of having to fight for their postseason lives.
Even before this season, there was speculation that Therrien could be fired, and he entered the 2016-17 campaign a prime candidate to lose his job if the team didn't perform. But until Tuesday, Bergevin remained loyal to his coach, to whom he'd given multiple votes of confidence. (Here's one from May of 2014; here's another from December 2015; and here's another from the following month.)
Last week, something changed -- an external event that made replacing Therrien more attractive. The Bruins fired Julien, the league's longest-tenured coach, who'd won a Stanley Cup in Boston and this season was behind the bench of a Bruins team that had good possession numbers even as they hovered around the playoff bubble.
But Julien, who'd coached the Habs for parts of three seasons between 2003 and 2006, had something else going for him: He speaks French. And that matters in a Montreal coaching search, even as Bergevin said in his statement announcing the decision that "we hired the best available coach, and one of the league's best."
It's not simply a question of logistics in a city with so much French-speaking media. There's considerable pressure on the club to hire a French-speaking coach; it's why a breakdown like this one of potential Habs coaches is divided into ones who speak French and those that don't. When Montreal hired non-French-speaking Randy Cunneyworth as its interim coach in 2011, the backlash was so strong that the Quebec government publicly criticized it, and Canadiens owner Geoff Molson assured fans in a letter that language would be a factor when the team hired its permanent head coach in the next offseason. The job ultimately went to Therrien, who then began his second stint as Habs coach. Now he's been fired a second time, and just like the last time, will be replaced by Julien.
Bergevin reportedly requested permission from the Bruins on Sunday to speak with Julien -- the same day that Boston shut out Montreal 4-0, and just days after Bergevin met in private with veterans Max Pacioretty, Carey Price and Shea Weber. Once granted that permission, Bergevin pounced, surely realizing that a better coach -- and more specifically, a better coach for the unique Montreal market -- wasn't likely to become available.
The timing also gives the Habs a chance to right their ship for the season's home stretch. As of Tuesday night, they remain six points ahead of Ottawa, but the Senators have four games in hand, while the Habs are in the middle of their bye week and don't play again until Saturday. Finishing first isn't quite the prize it may seem, since the Atlantic winner will likely end up playing a strong wild card team from the stacked Metropolitan Division. (At the moment, that team would be the fourth-place Rangers, who have at least five more points than any team in the Atlantic.) And so finishing second wouldn't be so bad either -- and could also lead to something of a dream playoff scenario: Julien's new team, the Canadiens, facing his old team, the Bruins.
But playoff positioning only matters if the Habs stay in the playoff picture at all, and Bergevin understood he needed to do something to stop the slide. It remains to be seen whether a new coach will cure all of Montreal's ills, most notably Cary Price's less-than-world-class play of late. But Bergevin also understood an opportunity this good might not come along again, and that if he doesn't get this coaching change right, with his own seat sufficiently hot, he may not get another chance.